Over the past few weeks, I’ve written columns where I took on the daunting task of describing why Eastern Kentucky is so poor. This is a subject I’ve thought a lot about in my four decades of life in this place. I am influenced by having grown up the son of a miner in Leslie County and having the fortune of being partially raised in other communities in the area — McCreary and Clay; in practicing law in courtrooms around the entire region; and in working in more than 25 counties on a regular basis for the Kentucky Innovation Network as an economic developer and business consultant.
My experiences have opened my eyes to what I think are our biggest challenges: geography (too hilly), location (too remote), and culture (we are not a people who think like the rest of the world). That’s my thesis. For these reasons, we’ll never be Gatlinburg, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Asheville, or Huntington. If you want to attract industry, go to China (or its latest competitor, Vietnam). We will also not build an economy based on high-brow, eclectic art, the way Asheville apparently purportedly has.
What can we do? I think our biggest hurdles are our biggest assets. Start with geography: We have some of the most rugged, rural areas anywhere on the eastern seaboard. At the same time, it’s not Alaska or Grand Canyon rugged. Instead of becoming one vast wilderness tract or park, we can become host to hundreds, perhaps thousands of small venues and forums playing host to tourists looking for escape from areas up and down I-75 and I-64.
Our location may not facilitate us becoming a commercial hub, but it’s not so far that it can’t attract visitors who are willing to stay overnight and partake in a host of unusual destinations.
Finally, our culture plays to this strategy. We will stay in these hills, come hell or high water. Instead of having to worry about folks lighting out for other locations, let’s recognize they’re place-bound and give them something to do with that plot of earth grandpa passed down. Teach them to create Appalachian-style you-picks, cabins, distilleries, wineries, breweries, niche-foods, museums, and more. Since this isn’t a path to riches, let’s partner with organizations like Kentucky Teleworks and also give them the ability to work in off seasons. More Americans are working two jobs; let’s give the mountaineer the ability to do it, too. (Dark fiber, anyone?)
From Pikeville to Monticello, we have some incredible places. They’ll never be totally connected or unified. So let’s train cadres to be excellent entrepreneurs and turn them loose to change our economy. The mountaineer is going to go his own way. Let’s just teach them to be more effective in the process. Entrepreneurship is the process of successfully starting and growing enterprises. This is the most critical need in our area.
Johnathan Gay is director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State. The opinions expressed here are his own.